Why Are Some of Silicon Valley’s Best and Brightest Spending Time on a Foreign Election?

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Aam Aadmi Party candidate Maya Vishwakarma campaigning in Hoshangabad, Madhya Pradesh; photo: Maya Vishwakarma

In 2009 Maya Vishwakarma was living the American Dream. The daughter of a farmer from a poor village in India, she was the first woman from her district to get an advanced degree and go to the U.S. to pursue a Ph.D. She eventually got her Green Card and settled in Silicon Valley, working as a researcher at the University of California, San Francisco.

Today, at age 32, she is living a very different dream, one that she could not have imagined a few years ago. Maya is back in India, running as a parliamentary candidate in this year’s national elections.

Although this is a midterm election year in the U.S., in which 10 Indian Americans are running for office, many Indian immigrants like Maya have their sights set on elections in their home country instead.

These immigrants are drawing on their experiences with U.S. politics to try to bring about change in India’s government. They are applying lessons learned from policy debates in the U.S. and social media strategies developed by the Obama campaign.

Indian general elections take place every five years, but this year’s is an historic election on multiple fronts. Roughly 814 million people are eligible to vote in the balloting that runs from April 7 – May 12.

The left-leaning Congress Party, which has been in power for 49 of the past 67 years, has been rocked by a series of high-profile corruption scandals and a faltering economy. The rival Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is expected to ride the anti-incumbency sentiment to power.

The BJP is a Hindu nationalist party led by Narendra Modi, the Chief Minister of the state of Gujarat, whose pro-business policies delivered strong economic growth but whose tenure is also marked by bloody communal riots between Hindus and Muslims. The sudden rise of a new political party, the Aam Aadmi (“Common Man”) Party, has added a new dimension to Indian politics.

The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), by contrast, grew out of a mass movement against government corruption and unexpectedly swept into power in Delhi state elections last year. The party, which was formed in November 2012, is contesting national elections for the first time.

Also for the first time, Indian citizens living outside India, known as Non-Resident Indians (NRIs), are allowed to vote in the national elections. Approximately 12,000 NRIs are registered as voters.

The number of expatriate voters may be small, but immigrants like Chandrakant Patel are playing an active role in political campaigns. Mr. Patel lives in Tampa, Florida and is the president of Overseas Friends of BJP-USA, an organization with 4,000 members that is running a large-scale voter awareness and fundraising drive. He has campaigned for the BJP in several elections throughout his 25 years in the U.S. and once again traveled to his home state of Chhattisgarh to canvass voters in April.

For hundreds of other Indian Americans this is the first time they are participating in Indian general elections as volunteers, campaign managers and candidates, largely due to the emergence of the Aam Aadmi Party. AAP’s message of corruption-free, accountable governance has resonated strongly with many Indian immigrants, for whom politics was previously anathema.

Himanshu Sharma, who is a coordinator for a New Jersey group called Friends of Aam Aadmi Party, says “Politics [in India] is considered dirty, full of criminals.”

He says people don’t feel comfortable being associated with politicans. “Obviously when you have to get something done, you take help of some politician that you know. But you never want your kid to become a politician,” he says.

Himanshu remembers the exact moment the Aam Aadmi Party was formed. He and his wife stayed awake late into the night to see the formal announcement on Indian television. Inspired, he decided that he had to become politically involved if he hoped to change the system. He quickly established a Google group, blog, Facebook page and YouTube channel for supporters of the party in New Jersey, and began organizing.

Aam Aadmi Party candidate Maya Vishwakarma campaigning in Hoshangabad, Madhya Pradesh. (Photo: Maya Vishwakarma)

Maya Vishwakarma, the candidate for Parliament, is a self-described news junkie. She closely followed the India Against Corruption movement that began in 2011 and realized that its momentum would fade without a strong political party to carry the message forward. Although she had never been involved in politics, she started a chapter of AAP in Silicon Valley and organized over a hundred volunteers to raise funds and call voters during the Delhi elections.

When the national elections came around, her AAP colleagues in India encouraged her to run for a seat in Parliament. Since January she has been campaigning in her home district in Madhya Pradesh, visiting villages that still lack electricity, schools and hospitals.

Even though they have never participated in American politics, both Sharma and Vishwakarma credit the U.S. with introducing them to what they see as effective policymaking and governance. They want to help create a similar system of government in India.

Shalini Gupta, who has lived in Chicago for the past 33 years and is now working full time in India as an organizational development advisor for the Aam Aadmi Party says, “I find that the energy for [the AAP movement] amongst NRIs is even stronger than in those people in India, which is a really interesting conundrum because they are less impacted by it. They are a little bit more removed but they are able to see from a distance what is happening in India systemically much more clearly than the people who are immersed here.”

Indian immigrants are also bringing their appreciation for American political organizing to India. Shalini, who was a volunteer for the Obama campaign, says, “When we started with the Aam Aadmi Party organization, we were really studying in a lot of detail what were the elements that made [the Obama campaign] successful, and how we could adapt it into the Aam Aadmi Party organization.”

Tactics they have borrowed from President Obama’s playbook include the mobilization of a large number of grassroots volunteers rather than paid workers, the use of data analytics and the leveraging of social media and technology platforms to attract volunteers and funding. Shalini estimates that one-third of the funds raised for AAP come from NRIs.

Like the Obama campaign, this year’s Indian elections have raised immigrants’ hope for transformative change. It’s this hope that has some of them rethinking their own future in India.

It’s also an investment for me,“ says Sharma, who has lived in the US for 15 years. “Now it’s a global civilization, so my job might want me to be there for some time. Even my kids might have to work there. So it’s in the interest of everybody that we help the process of democracy.”

Pradeep Sundriyal echoes these sentiments. Sundriyal quit his job with a technology company in Silicon Valley after living in the U.S. for 10 years. He now works as a campaign manager for an AAP candidate in India and says of his plans for the future, “It’s more of a global dream than an American dream.”

Regardless of the election results, Ms. Vishwakarma has already decided she wants to stay in India and work on good governance. “After seeing this scenario, I won’t think of going back to the U.S. I want to work here. That’s for sure.”

Fi2W is supported by the David and Katherine Moore Family Foundation and the Ralph E. Odgen Foundation. The Fi2W Magazine was made possible in part by The Media Consortium and the Voqal Fund.

AboutAditi Anand
Aditi Anand is a writer and multimedia content producer based in New Delhi, India. She grew up in New York and moved to India in 2009. Previously, she was a scriptwriter and producer for a youth film series that aired on STAR, India's largest TV network, and a radio series that aired on All India Radio.